This month’s theme is an ‘Open Call’ judged by the fantastic NY-based photographer Chris Buck. We called him across the pond and discussed his beginnings in the music scene, how he gets inspiration, and the importance of going against the grain.
All images © Chris Buck
Vice Offices, 2013
Chris, how are you? Where in the world and in what mood do we find you today?
I’m great! I’m in my apartment in New York, and I’m plugging away on a blog post for Ted Cruz – the American senator who famously manoeuvred the shutdown of our Government. I photographed him recently for GQ Magazine and I’m writing a blog post on him. [LF: That blog post is now up on a blog
, we discuss in more depth later].
Senator Ted Cruz, 2013 (with a Justice William Rehnquist bobblehead)
You’re best known for your celebrity portraits. Can you give us an idea of how that came about? Did you get a big ‘break’, and did you always intend to focus on portraiture?
I went to school for photography, but I was actually much more interested in popular culture at the time and that’s where my heart was. As a young person you’ll have some voices around you telling you to pursue what you love, and not necessarily what’s practical, and I was very much into music – reading the NME, seeing bands like The Smiths… I was involved with a local music paper in Toronto as a photographer and photo editor (for Nerve), I managed a band for a while, released local and international bands so I was really involved in the music world but the fact was I had no talent for making music itself. Ultimately I wanted to be involved in the creative side of whatever I did and so I decided to throw my weight behind shooting musicians and bands and that’s how I ended up being a photographer.
Your portraits are always inventive and unexpected. Do you go in to a shoot armed with concepts, or are ideas generated spontaneously during the shoot?
I certainly go in with lots of ideas. Some are complicated, involving props and costumes, and some are more simple; a gesture or a facial expression. I bring a whole range because you don’t know how game people are going to be, or whether the ideas will work with them. I try lots of things, and edit later to see what worked.
I like to be very prepared, but I also try to be very open to what might happen on the shoot. Subjects might give you an expression in the moment, but rarely do they have ideas, and the ones they do are usually bad ideas! You learn to not have any expectations of your subjects. I initially found it frustrating that subjects bring so little to the sittings but now I appreciate that I’m really in charge.
Of course on advertising shoots I’m working with a team from an ad agency, and they become my creative partners – which I love, because these people are usually so inspired and ambitious!
Now that you reputation for unique images precedes you, do you feel a pressure to make the next image quirkier and more surprising than the last?
I’m proud of a lot of the work I’ve done but it’s not like I’m sitting back letting my reputation proceed me. Most of my subjects won’t know my work so they don’t have expectations either.
Every magazine shoot can feel like a mystery, and a bit scary, almost like starting from scratch. I never know exactly what’s going to happen, and it’s always a little chaotic – and magical.
Diesel, Be Stupid print campaign, 2009
Is there anyone who has stood out as being a joy to work with? Or conversely really challenging?
I’m often working with these entertaining people, but really I’m just trying to get one or two great photos. That’s my aim. People will ask, ‘Was it fun?’ and I’m like ‘no! It wasn’t fun!’
It was work…
Right! I like to say that “if you’re having fun you’re not doing it right.” It’s stressful and for the first three quarters at least I’m just working to make it come together. I might look relaxed, and I’m glad it comes across that way, but really I’m just pushing to get a unique image.
That said I get on well with the comedians, people like Andy Samberg and Steve Coogan. I’m not trying to do a cheesy picture with them and they know it, and relax and have a nicer time. I photographed Steve Coogan just before my daughter was born, and he has a daughter, so we ended up talking about that, and it was enjoyable to chat about being a father.
Andy Samberg, 2006
Steve Coogan, 2009
Your book ‘Presence: The Invisible Portrait’ is pretty special. How did you manage to persuade David Lynch, Jack Black, Jay Leno, Sarah Silverman et al that photographing them out of view was a good idea? They must have thought you crazy…
Honestly, a lot of the time they thought it was pretty stupid, but because they’re not visible and only takes 30 seconds, it’s sometimes easier to say yes than no.
Before this I had other series ideas, I wanted to do celebrities in their underwear but it’s hard enough to get them to do anything, let alone something that revealing. I realised I needed something low impact, quick, and sitting for Presence they’re going to look fine because they’re not visible! In a way it was actually very easy to do.
Some people really got into it. William Shatner loved it. Steve Coogan very intrigued by it. People who are creative minded tend to find it quite cool and appreciate that it’s kind of playful but also challenging. I don’t think Nick Cave particularly likes being photographed, but we took him half way across a hotel to do my weird thing with him and he was cool about it.
Nick Cave, Presence, 2008
Is there anyone you’d love to photograph? Perhaps bands, harking back to your career beginnings?
I’m a fan of the Black Keys so I’d like to shoot with them. And then there are the obvious people I’ve not got to yet; Vladimir Putin, Madonna. Rob Ford (Mayor of Toronto) is famously contrary and there’s allegedly video footage of him buying crack so he could be fun to make a portrait with!
What makes a good portrait a great one?
Some vulnerability or openness. Even a damaged quality coming through from the subject. To me that’s what makes a great portrait.
You don’t just take portraits, and have several personal series to your name. Tell us a bit about ‘All Fours’…
All Fours is a favourite one of mine because I don’t know what it means. Young photographers at college are always asked to write these articulate statements about what their work means, and in a funny way I think this is a kicking against that. I’m a big believer that the best art is often not really understood by the artist, at least not initially, and it comes from a place of excitement and curiosity but not necessarily understanding.
All Fours, Picture 13
All Fours, Picture 6
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I have a number of projects I’m developing right now that are very disturbing and sexual and mysterious, and I’m not going to say anything more than that at this point!
You’ve set about releasing a photo a day from your archives on Instagram. What brought that about?
I have a large archive of pictures that aren’t on my website: older work, or oddball one-off kind of images that don’t really connect to my core body of work. But because Instagram is a fun and disposable medium I can put these pictures up there that I wouldn’t normally show otherwise. One of the things that has been getting the most feedback is my portraits of photographers.
Robert Frank, 1994
That neatly leads us into talking about your blog. You’ve interviewed a few photographers and put those conversations up there, and it’s really interesting to hear a photographer interview another photographer. It’s an unusual perspective…
I feel like I want to have content that goes beyond me, me, me! To showcase someone like Johnny Tergo
is exciting. I can showcase people who I’m inspired by.
…And it’s a great resource for us to uncover new favourites. Who else working at the moment inspires you?
One person is Cindy Sherman. Her photography hasn’t really influenced my work directly that much, but I really admire her career. She’s a woman who’s made work over a long period of time, work that’s sometimes difficult and probably didn’t get much of a response when it was made but she kept on and continued to make strong work that was more challenging than her previous work when she could have done things more similar to the style she was celebrated for. I think in the long run it’s served her well and she’s now heralded as being one of the great artists of our time. That difficult work has made her all the more powerful and more respected.
It’s really valuable for younger photographers to see that’s not just about immediate approval, but about making work that’s meaningful for you in the long run.
It’s great advice. What else would you say to our readers? A lot of them are aspiring professionals…
I’m going to give a pretty hardcore suggestion that may not suit everyone’s taste, but I think that it is actually solid advice.
I believe that it’s more valuable to be kicking against things than be inspired by them. A lot of young photographers will see shooters they admire, and they’ll try to make work in that fashion. If you see work out there in the genre that you work in and say ‘I think this photographer’s wonderful, I’m going to make pictures just like that’ it’s going to take you a long time to carve your own style and to have a vision that’s separate from people you’re influenced by. But if you look at work out there and say ‘these people are getting it all wrong. I’m going to show them how to get it right!’ you’re more likely to push out into fresh territory.
The fact is, it’s a competitive business, there’s a lot of good people, and to differentiate yourself and have the fortitude and patience, and maybe anger. Anger can be an amazing catalyst to success.
Thank you to Chris for taking the time out to share his thoughts and insights with us. You can see more of his work here
and explore the theme he’ll be judging here